Thursday, September 30, 2010

Its time to get suckered

Spring is truly a fantastic season! There is nothing quite like the incredible burst of psychedelic neon green to announce the rebirth of life. It was this very phenomena that the ancient Celts attributed to the power of the pagan deity 'The Green Man' or spirit of the forest.
For wine farmers spring is the starting point of the new vintage and with it comes all the usual vineyard practices. For the past two weeks we have been suckering the vines. It is an extremely calming and therapeutic task but vital for the efficient production of top notch fruit.

The objective is simple and can be illustrated by the before and after photographs of a Chardonnay vine on shale soils:
1) Clear the vine's stem of any shoots by breaking them off by hand.
2) Thin out the arms by removing any shoots without grapes or which are not positioned on the spurs.
3) The result is that growth energy is focused only where it is needed and it also thins the canopy which increases aeration and helps prevent fungal diseases.

The best part about suckering the vines is that it gives one the opportunity to observe nature up close. Budding, blossoms, bees and fruit... everywhere and a lot of it. It might be to early to call but I have a sneaky suspicion we are in for a bumper crop (touch wood - we still have to wait for fruit set)
I have never seen as many olive blossoms since we planted our trees 7 years ago. Last season we cured enough olives to feed a small Italian village for at least a year and I think this season is going to be a major challenge. No wonder the clone we planted is called 'mission' because when it comes to picking, curing and bottling 40 olive trees worth of fruit - IT'S A MISSION. We would love to sell or give away fresh olives with the upcoming harvest - please mail us if you would like any.
There is also a heavy fig and almond crop. We never bet the figs to actually ripen properly - perhaps we should preserve them when they are small, hard and green (difficult to find the time) I love almonds! Karen goes to extraordinary lenghts to make the most delicious marzipan. Its so good we have actually planted another 8 almond trees.
Citrus blossoms have the most intoxicating fragrance imaginable and is in my opinion responsible for making the best honey. We have a bee hive in the eave of our farm house and I have no doubt the success of the almond fruit set this year was largely thanks to them. They are however too close for comfort having stung most of the family members up to and including the dogs. I just cant bring myself to get rid of them - perhaps someone can advise on a natural way of driving them away.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Muselet of the Month (September 2010)

Owners: LVMH (Moet Hennessy Loius Vuitton)
Established: 1843
Located: Reims, Champagne
Sales: 500 000 bottles
Exports: 83%
Delux Cuvees:Grand Cuvee, Rose NV, Clos du Mesnil, Clos d Ambonnay

One of the famous Champagne houses that formed part of the membership of the Grande Marques. Founded by Johann-Joseph Krug a German immigrant from Mainz. Henri Krug along with Eric Lebel are currently responsible for the wine making decisions. The house is now part of the global luxury brand conglomerate LVMH of which they are considered the crown jewel. The house style is very distinctive and easily recognisable due to the 100% barrel fermentation policy and extended lees aging. Rich, full, creamy, nutty and a certain oakiness are all very obvious characters.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Greatness of 'Brand' Champagne (and Cap Classique)

Why does Champagne have such an irresistible allure? Personally I need no further justification other than that Champagne is quite simply the ultimate flavour sensation - a magical burst of elegance, finesse and complexity all in perfect harmony. This would naturally be far too subjective an opinion so lets examine more tangible reasons:

Champagne is universally synonymous with celebration, luxury and opulence. Much of this, no doubt, is the result of the cleverest and most sustained advertising campaign in the history of wine, but some of it, at least, is to do with the nature of the wine itself. Does Cap Classique have similar credentials?

Champagne first gained international attention for its association with the historical anointment of French kings in Reims. In South Africa Graham Beck Brut was served at the 1994 inauguration of Nelson Mandela and went on to claim international fame by being part of Barack Obama's inauguration festivities in 2009.

There is no better way to celebrate a victory than by cracking open a bottle of Bubbly! Napoleon summed it up perfectly " Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat ones needs it" From the winners podium of F1 racing to the winning of most major sporting events the celebratory burst of Champagne is ever present and always essential.

Traditionally Champagne is used to launch and name ships, not forgetting the Christening of a baby. Its difficult imagining a bottle of Bordeaux breaking on the bow of ocean liner as it launches off the slipway.

No social celebration or party would be as much fun without Champagne - how many millions of New Years party count downs through the eons have culminated with the joyful burst of Champagne.

Champagne is one of the most powerful symbols of France's status as a producer of quality products. Champagne is without doubt a brand in itself. Winston Churchill recognised this so clearly when he said "Remember gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, its Champagne!"

Millers (beer) use the catch phrase 'The Champagne of beers' which is similar to Appletizer's old slogan ' The Champagne of apple juice' The mere association with Champagne conjures up the unmistakable benchmark of quality.

One of the most long lasting associations between popular culture and Champagne belongs to James Bond. In a count of 22 films 34 references are made to the suave 007 agent drinking prestige cuvees 17 of which were Bollinger and 7 Dom Perignon.

When it comes to food there can be no more an opulent match than the finest Beluga caviar and Champagne both quintessential flavours fit for a king.

In essence Champagne is more than just a wonderful sparkling wine, it is a brand in itself and if you don't have Champagne then Cava, Sekt, Spumante and here in good old South Africa, Cap Classique are all worthy substitutes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Understanding secondary fermentation

This week was extremely exciting (and very nerve racking) - we bottled 13000 bottles of Silverthorn Cap Classique under crown cap for secondary fermentation. What is secondary fermentation? Simply stated this is what sets Champagne style wines apart from all other wine types - it is the method by which the magical bubble is imparted into a still wine. Without getting too technical I will attempt, in point form and with visual support, to reveal some of the 'secrets' of secondary fermentation.

1) After harvesting, whole bunch pressing, primary fermentation, blending, stabilising and filtering the resulting product is referred to as a base wine. It has a very low alcohol content (10.5%) and very low sulphur (10mg/l FSO2) in order to ensure that the yeast can easily complete secondary fermentation in the bottle. The only form of preservative is the base wines naturally high acid and very low pH.

2) We then sugar up the base wine by adding 24g of sugar per liter. This formula is simple - 4g of sugar gives you 1 bar of pressure - we ideally want 6 bars of pressure.

3) We then make up a batch of strongly fermenting yeast over an extended period of 3 days (see image of bubbling yeast) The reason we take so long is to acclimatise the yeast to the alcohol content of 10.5% and to build up a massive population of active microscopic yeast cells.

4) On the day of bottling we thoroughly mix the brew of yeast into the sugared up base wine (see image of cloudy wine) and add yeast nutrition and a riddling agent (bentonite clay which helps settle the lees during the riddling process pre-degorging)

5) The bottling line needs to be specially prepared for the critical action of crown cap application. Due to the fact that we cant filter the base wine (it would remove the yeast) we have to sterilise and sanitise the machinery by steaming it for one hour (see image of steaming bottling jaws) The crown cap applicator needs to be accurately installed and set up.

6) A sparkling wine bottle has two important design features: firstly it has a very deep punt and thick walls to withstand the build up of 6 bars of pressure and secondly the lip design incorporates a rounded ridge which facilitates the application of a crown cap (see image of the gold crown cap securely crimped into place)

7) Once the wines have been bottled and sealed the next important step to consider is storage. The bottles need to be packed into bins lying horizontally (see image of wooden bins in a cool storage room)The bins need to be stored in a constantly cool (14 degrees Celsius) cellar. This is essential in order to ensure slow controlled secondary fermentation resulting in a fine bubble.

8) The minimum time Cap Classique has to legally spend on the lees is 9 months. This process of lees contact is the secret to developing complex rich biscuity flavours from the autolysis of yeast cells (they break up releasing flavour components like amino acids) The other positive benefit of time on the lees is to get gentle fine bubbles. Silverthorn The Green Man and Genie both spend an average of 28 months on the lees.

So quite simply secondary fermentation is the process by which yeast convert sugar into two products - alcohol (from 10.5% to 11.5%) and carbon dioxide (the bubble) Due to the crimped on crown cap the carbon dioxide cant escape and is naturally captured inside the bottle. It is through this incredible process that you as the consumer can enjoy the thrill of Bubbly.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Muselet of the Month (August 2010)

Owners: Bollinger SA
Established: 1829
Located: Ay, Champagne, France
Sales: 1.2 million bottles
Exports: Over 75%
Delux Cuvees: RD and Vieilles Vignes
Possibly the most famous of the great grande marques of Champagne. Founded by Joseph Bollinger and Paul Renaudin in 1829. Made famous by the charismatic widow, Lily Bollinger who took over the business when her husband died in 1941 and remained in charge till 1971. She championed the traditional method of Champagne making and thus the house style is distinctly influenced by barrel fermentation and ageing. In terms of taste, it means that Bollinger's Champagnes have big sweeping aromas and mouth storming flavours.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How to capture the magical Champagne bubble

Wine fanatics often collect labels from bottles they have consumed, in contrast, Champagne afficionados take this past-time up a few notches - they collect muselets.

The earliest Champagne closure was primitive and totally ineffective. Bottles were sealed with pieces of wood and oil soaked cloth which were then dipped in wax. This method proved a failure at suppressing the almost 6 atmospheres of pressure in the average bottle and the result was frequently exploding stoppers and leaking resulting in flat wines. This was counteracted by the use of cork in the late 17th century. In order to secure the corks they were tied down with hempden string. This was a manual technique and it became very difficult to keep pace the ever increasing production demand.

In 1844 Adolphe Jacqueson invented the wire and hood or muselet (museler in french means muzzle) This consisted of a prefabricated metal plaque and a wire cage. Various shapes and numbers of 'legs' around the neck were tried before the the four-legged modern muselet was settled on. In 1906 Pol Roger took the functional muselet to the next level when it was customized and branded by use of lithography. Branding and packaging is one of the successes of Champagne and the detail and design on muselets is spectacular. Not surprising that it has lead to the existence of the Placomusophile or simply the muselet collector. Considering that there are well over 5000 champagne producers alone excluding all the other forms of sparkling wine producers from Cava to Cap Classique it should be more than a life times endeavour. I suspect the best part of the quest is actually drinking the bubbly.

I find this kind of trivia not only fascinating but vital. Learning the name of an object, understanding and knowing its history and putting it in context all gives it meaning and importance. A humble throwaway object acquires relevance and existence in our consciousness.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bubbly is good for your brain

When raising a glass of Cap Classique and toasting 'Cheers' the general attitude is that this is a way of figuratively praising one's health. Recent research has now proven that moderate consumption of Bubbly genuinely protects the brain. A joint study by the universities of Reading and Cagliari found that phenolic compounds in sparkling wine such as tyrosol and caffeic acid help protect the brain against injuries incurred during a stroke and other ailments such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. ( Health benefits of Champagne)

On a less scientific level sparkling wine is commonly associated with celebration and the general sense of euphoria imparted is great at raising the spirits and encouraging a sense of well being.

Sparkling wine is the natural choice for the modern health conscious life style. Low in alcohol (average of 11.5%) and very low in SO2 (in order to ensure secondary fermentation its less than 50ppm) it is not surprising that Cap Classique is currently the only wine sector with significant growth in South Africa. Now I know why it's socially acceptable to drink Bubbly first thing in the morning with breakfast - I always thought it was to make the orange juice taste better.... Cheers.